Overview of the Immune System

The immune system is a remarkably versatile defense system that has evolved to protect animals from invading pathogenic microorganisms and cancer. It is able to generate an enormous variety of cells and molecules capable of specifically recognizing and eliminating an apparently limitless variety of foreign invaders. These cells and molecules act together in a dynamic network whose complexity rivals that of the nervous system.

Functionally, an immune response can be divided into two related activities—recognition and response. Immune recognition is remarkable for its specificity. The immune system is able to recognize subtle chemical differences that distinguish one foreign pathogen from another. Furthermore, the system is able to discriminate between foreign molecules and the body's own cells and proteins. Once a foreign organism has been recognized, the immune system recruits a variety of cells and molecules to mount an appropriate response, called an effector response, to eliminate or neutralize the organism. In this way the system is able to convert the initial recognition event into a variety of effector responses, each uniquely suited for eliminating a particular type of pathogen. Later exposure to the same foreign organism induces a memory response, characterized by a more rapid and heightened immune reaction that serves to eliminate the pathogen and prevent disease.

This chapter introduces the study of immunology from an historical perspective and presents a broad overview of the cells and molecules that compose the immune system, along with the mechanisms they use to protect the body against foreign invaders. Evidence for the presence of very simple immune systems in certain invertebrate organisms then gives an evolutionary perspective on the mammalian immune system, which is the major subject of this book. Elements of the primitive immune system persist in vertebrates as innate immunity along with a more highly evolved system of specific responses termed adaptive immunity. These two systems work in concert to provide a high degree of protection for vertebrate species. Finally, in some circumstances, the immune system fails to act as protector because of some deficiency in its components; at other times, it becomes an aggressor and turns its awesome powers against its own host. In this introductory chapter, our description of immunity is simplified to reveal the essential structures and function of the immune system. Substantive discussions, experimental approaches, and in-depth definitions are left to the chapters that follow.

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